BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The first time she saw her son’s Gonzaga team take the court, Matt Bouldin’s mother, Dana, tagged the Bulldogs the Bad News Bears.
“We were scrimmaging Texas and they’re there, all business, dunking and running and we’re just this group of guys, most of us foreigners, just running around doing our thing,’’ Bouldin said.
Robert Sacre prefers "pack of goofballs," for his merry band of misfits, a roster made up of one German, four Canadians, the “single most laid-back guy in the world" in Steven Gray and the mop-topped Bouldin.
“Oh my God, I have no idea how the coaches recruited this team,’’ Sacre said. “What were they thinking? We must be the most random team in America.’’
The most random team in American may also be the most relaxed. Fitting their West Coast granola-crunching, Earth-loving zip code, the Bulldogs’ vibe is decidedly chill.
They spent their time on the interview dais cracking jokes and busting each other up, acting like they were readying for a CYO scrimmage rather than an NCAA Tournament second-round game against top-seeded Syracuse.
“I don’t see a reason to get all worked up about things,’’ said Gray, of whom Mark Few said he needs to check for a pulse sometimes. “I don’t really get too worried or too excited about things. That just takes a lot of energy. I think we’re all kind of like that.’’
It’s an attitude that will serve them well in Buffalo where the laid-back Zags will find a charged-up atmosphere. With just 120 miles separating campus and the HSBC Arena, Syracuse might as well be stepping onto the Carrier Dome floor. Save for the tiny pocket of Gonzaga fans that trekked 3,000 miles to see their team, the arena will be practically painted in orange.
It would be enough to frazzle most teams but Gonzaga’s goofy crew has been well tested.
The Zags played a schedule only John Chaney would love -- at Michigan State and in Hawaii in November; in New York against Duke, home against Oklahoma and then at Illinois two days later in December, and hey just for fun, a February date at Memphis.
Nothing is close to Spokane but the Bulldogs go out of their way to rack up frequent-flyer miles.
“Whether it’s flying to Maui or flying to Memphis or flying to Madison Square Garden, we try to play in a lot of these games,’’ Few said. “The reason I do it is to help us prepare for the NCAA Tournament.’’
It has, as most people know, worked pretty well. Gonzaga has gone from Cinderella to program to be reckoned with thanks to a four Sweet 16 berths in the past 10 years.
For this team the brutal schedule has been particularly helpful. Gonzaga has just two seniors and one junior on its roster, the rest made up of freshmen and sophomores getting their first real playing experience.
Mix in the United Nations representation -- Sacre is from Vancouver by way of Louisiana, Mangisto Arop from Ontario, Bol Kong and Kelly Olynyk from British Columbia and star rookie Elias Harris from Germany -- and the trips are even more critical.
“This is the most fun I’ve ever had,’’ said Bouldin, one of the two seniors. “We just really like each other. I mean, you’re sort of forced to get along when you’re on the road as much as we are, but this is a really good group of guys.’’
Don’t let the fun fool you, though. The Zags might like to play loose and free-spirited on offense and push the tempo, but they are all business when the whistle blows.
Gray scored a very unlaid-back 15 points against Florida State and Sacre withstood the bumping and pushing of the Seminoles big man to come up with 13 points and nine boards.
“We definitely know how to flip the switch,’’ Gray said. “We like to play with a sense of relaxed calm on offense, but high energy on defense. We know when to be serious.’’